How Game Design Principles Can Enhance Democracy

Essay by Adrian Hon: “Gamification — the use of ideas from game design for purposes beyond entertainment — is everywhere. It’s in our smartwatches, cajoling us to walk an extra thousand steps for a digital trophy. It’s in our classrooms, where teachers use apps to reward and punish children with points. And it’s in our jobs, turning the work of Uber drivers and call center staff into quests and missions, where success comes with an achievement and $50 bonus, and failure — well, you can imagine.

Many choose to gamify parts of their lives to make them a little more fun, like learning a new language with Duolingo or going for a run with my own Zombies, Run! app. But the gamification we’re most likely to encounter in our lives is something we have no control over — in our increasingly surveilled and gamified workplaces, for instance, or through the creeping advance of manipulative gamification in financial, insurance, travel and health services.

In my new book, “You’ve Been Played,” I argue that governments must regulate gamification so that it respects workers’ privacy and dignity. Regulators must also ensure that gamified finance apps and video games don’t manipulate users into losing more money than they can afford. Crucially, I believe any gamification intended for schools and colleges must be researched and debated openly before deployment.

But I also believe gamification can strengthen democracies, by designing democratic participation to be accessible and to build consensus. The same game design ideas that have made video games the 21st century’s dominant form of entertainment — adaptive difficulty, responsive interfaces, progress indicators and multiplayer systems that encourage co-operative behaviour — can be harnessed in the service of democracies and civil society…

Fully participating in democracy today — not just voting, but getting involved in local planning and budgeting processes, or building and sharing knowledge — involves navigating increasingly complex systems that desperately need to be made more welcoming and accessible. So while the idea of gamifying democracy may seem to trivialize the deep problems we face today or be another instance of techno-solutionism, that’s not my intention. It’s a recognition that we already live in a digital democracy — one where deliberation takes place on social media that’s gamified to reward and promote the hottest takes and most divisive comments by means of upvotes and karma points; where people learn about the world through the warped lens of conspiracy theories that resemble alternate reality games; and where collective action is enabled and amplified by popularity contests on crowdfunding websites and Reddit.

“The same game design ideas that have made video games the 21st century’s dominant form of entertainment can be harnessed in the service of democracies and civil society.”…(more)”